The war has not gone as planned and there are growing signs that Russia’s strategy is fraying under the pressure of events.
This is the fourth day of Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine. Contrary to Vladimir Putin's expectations, his blitzkrieg has clearly failed. The Ukrainian army and tens of thousands of ordinary people have put up fierce resistance to the invaders, and the Kremlin’s hoped-for small victorious war has turned into protracted battles with the shelling of cities with heavy weapons and street fighting.
Russia’s military failure was only underlined by today’s news that Ukrainian and Russian officials have agreed to meet today in Belarus, near the River Pripyat, for talks without preconditions, Reuters reported. Winning generals prefer to discuss unconditional surrender.
Ukrainian and American experts had described Putin’s goals even before the war started. Hours before the invasion, former CIA officer-turned-cybersecurity expert Paul Zalucky argued that Putin's aggression would, without a shred of doubt, continue after the recognition of the so-called Russian puppet statelets of the DNR and LNR. The former intelligence officer urged Western countries to immediately impose the most severe sanctions against, warning that otherwise the entire territory of Donbas and adjacent regions, at the very least, would be seized.
Former adviser to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense and the head of the Center for Defense Reforms, Oleksandr Danylyuk also noted that, against the backdrop of further military escalation, two scenarios could play out: creating political and social destabilization that would lead to a coup in Ukraine, or breaking through a land corridor to Mariupol and in the future – to Crimea, so cutting off Ukraine from the Sea of Azov and seizing control over the Crimean Canal.
At the moment, it’s clear that the Kremlin has decided to implement both of these scenarios. As of the morning of February 26 (Kyiv time), Danylyuk reported that Russia has not abandoned its idea of a “pseudo-coup” under a false flag in Kyiv to install a government loyal to the Kremlin. For this purpose, he said, small groups of saboteurs disguised in Ukrainian uniform were sent to the city. He suggested that if Russia’s military wanted to avoid the possibility of a world war, it would be better employed toppling its own leader, back home in Moscow.
Danylyuk's analysis was subsequently confirmed by a statement from the office of President Zelenskyy, in which the key goal of the Russian occupiers was similarly described as the destruction of the country’s political leadership and, against the backdrop of chaos, the introduction of an interim administration. Even earlier, on February 25, Putin openly called on the Ukrainian military to “take power into their own hands” and negotiate with Russia. That call went unanswered.
Putin expects the Ukrainian authorities (those it hopes to bring to power), to undertake “demilitarization and denazification,” in the Orwellian language of the Kremlin. This would mean the complete disarmament of Ukraine, the recognition of its neutral status and the rejection of NATO (and likely European Union) membership. In essence, Ukraine would become completely dependent on Russia.
In addition, the Kremlin demands reprisals against all those whom it calls “war criminals,” which means all those who have fought against Russian aggression over the past eight years, including journalists and human rights activists. According to US intelligence, in the event of the seizure of Ukraine, Russia intends to eliminate political opponents, anti-corruption activists, journalists, representatives of ethnic minorities, as well as Russian and Belarusian dissidents living in exile, and has already prepared lists of those who would be killed or arrested. Almost all Ukrainian patriots understand that should Russia win, their futures would be extremely bleak.
Shelling and street fighting
On February 26, Ukraine refused to negotiate with Russia on such terms. In response, the Kremlin stepped up its offensive. According to unverified data cited by some opposition Telegram channels, the Russian General Staff set the task of taking either Kharkiv or Kyiv at any cost by Monday, regardless of losses. At the same time, losses, including among the civilian population, are growing with every hour. Kyiv and Kharkiv are under intense shelling. As the American political strategist Vitali Shkliarov, who was tortured in the Minsk pre-trial detention center for several months in 2020 and now lives in Kyiv, told this author, a real war is now underway in the city, including street fighting.
“We are lying face down on the floor, the air raid siren sounded again,” another resident of Kyiv, Maria, told me on the night of February 27. A curfew has been introduced starting at 17:00. Many spend their nights in metro stations equipped as bomb shelters, others sleep on the floor in the hallways of their apartments, ready to run out into the street at any moment. The media report that an oil depot is on fire near Kyiv, and a gas pipeline was blown up in Kharkiv. Rockets have hit houses. According to Russian media reports, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's regiments, which CEPA wrote about previously, captured a Ukrainian military base near Kyiv.
Reality and Russian propaganda
However, it’s clear that the goals that Putin set for his army have not been achieved. Former deputy of the Russian State Duma, opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev, who has been living in Kyiv for several years, wrote on his Facebook page that Russia is sorely lacking weapons and raw materials.
“The whole [Putin’s] plan is the hope that there will be panic. His hope that people will surrender or Zelensky will leave the country. They expect that at first Kharkiv will surrender, and the rest of the cities will follow its example in order to avoid bloodshed,” writes Ponomarev.
Leading Russian economist Vladislav Inozemtsev also called the Russian war against Ukraine a “defeat” due to “two fundamental elements of the Putin system – lies and theft.” The lie, according to him, was that Putin was misinformed by his own advisers, and the theft was the embezzlement of money aimed at rearming the army.
Meanwhile, in Russian propaganda, the main narratives of the first day of the war persist: that a “peacekeeping operation is being carried out in Ukraine in order to liberate the civilian population from the oppression of the puppet Nazi government.” Propagandists and officials lie that the Russian army "is not suffering losses", and residents are "happily" greeting the occupiers (Ukraine estimates that more than 4,300 Russian troops have died, but there is no confirmation of that figure.) Russia has meanwhile imposed censorship on the conflict: Roskomnadzor is now requiring the media to remove factual materials about the war under the threat of blocking them and prohibits the publication of any articles "in which the ongoing operation is called an attack, an invasion, or a declaration of war."
Russian dissidents trying to convince their neighbors and relatives told the author that most of the population still believes Kremlin propaganda and supports the military action. Military casualties and equipment losses are being concealed, and people who protest against the war are branded "traitors" and detained by the police. On the first day of the war alone, according to human rights activists, almost 2,000 people were detained.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. Author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.
Photo: A Ukrainian serviceman reacts while holding a weapon in Kharkiv, Ukraine February 25, 2022. Credit: REUTERS/Maksim Levin
February 27, 2022